This post will investigate how our perceived parenting competence impacts our fear and resulting emotional and behavioral reactions. We will focus on how fear can lead us into parenting interventions that are not consistent with our parenting values.
I was offering a parenting coaching intervention in a couples context the other week and I arrived at an interesting finding.
The couple has one very creative, sensitive, expressive, intuitive, and impulsive child that needed parental intervention to ensure the relative safety of various environments and people in those environments (the child needed help not playing to rough and chaotically). The parents needed help as their intervention methods were very different, and the fathers more authoritative method made the mom uncomfortable.
Values -I started the intervention by assessing values… in order to do so my goal is always to create as much felt safety as possible by genuinely entering into a place of significant curiosity and acceptance. My hypothesis was that there was a bit of value, belief, and ethical dissonance between the couple which resulting in differing parenting schemas (it is very hard to have a united parenting front when there are two widely different sets of beliefs as to how to parent a child). … as we deconstructed the parenting values and beliefs to there foundations we arrived at a welcome conclusion – the couple had essentially the same parenting values and same desires for how they would ideally re-direct misbehaving children.
Family of Origin – We then looked into family of origin themes to isolate how the two partners were parented themselves as children. This part promoted greater bonding and understanding between the couple, but still did not explain the intervention style of the husband… this intervention did however elicit some emotions for the father as the process uncovered his deep dissatisfaction with his intervention style.
Emotions – Next step was Somatics (body’s reaction) and Emotions – and we arrived at the answer. I oriented the clients into a more mindful place by directing them to differentiate from the parenting story I was going to have them recall. I told them that we all have a tendency to become enmeshed with our emotions while retelling a difficult story, but for this exercise we would be a curios mindful observer of our emotional and physiological states while retelling the story – we were going to observe with as little judgement, explaining or defending as possible.
The story was one that all of us with young children have experienced many many times. The young boy gets over excited at the playground… he misinterprets the non-verbal signals from a child he is playing with – he plays too rough and there is a worry that the other child might get hurt. Dad swoops in quickly and assertively to separate the children then relays to his child how dangerous he was playing. Dad appeared very angry while educating the child.
The emotion that the couple first identified were anger. Anger was what the couple believed to be the problem.
I share this next sequence of deconstructed emotions to normalize for all of us what it is like to parent in these difficult instances.
The emotional experience of the Dad (‘kind of’ in order)
Anxious or nervous: That he is in a situation were there is a high probability that his son will need a parenting intervention that he believes he is not competent enough to enact.
Embarrassed: that his child is more frequently the rambunctious one.
Fear: that the other child will get hurt
Fear: that he will not be able to successfully intervene with his son.
Fear: that his wife will think poorly of him
Sad and Shameful: That he is intervening in a way that is incongruent with his values (his parents were very patient, calm, and compassionate)
Terrified: that his wife (his primary connection) is non-verbally displaying disappointment and fear related to his authoritative parenting intervention.
Hopeless, Confused, and Flooded: that he does not have the confidence in his ability to regulate his son and thereby improve the probability of more empathetic play.
Angry: because his fight or flight system has been activated. His system is terrified as he feels disconnected from his attachments figures. (Quick note: social threat impacts our brains (and the fight or flight system) the exact same way as a physical threat. So the fear of being rejected by your partner impacts us the same way as the fear of being attacked by a tiger.
During this time both myself and his partner offered deep warmth and compassion.
Next we moved on to the solution
Solution Focused: We then switched to a solutions focused’ish’ intervention to identify unique outcomes = when the above story-line happened but there was a different result. The couple relayed numerous examples of successful outcomes and commented on how dramatically better things have gotten with the parenting now that they are more securely connected to each other (emotionally vulnerable and supportive… attuned… compassionate… present etc.)
Now if you look at the chain of emotions above you may be able to identify the ideal place of intervention… Anxious and Nervous.
The cascade into anger started long before the child started playing too rough… it started when they arrived at the park and the father started feeling anxious do to his self-perception of his parenting competence.
Unique outcome: In instances where the couple was successful the Dad was self-aware of his emotional state (mindful), vulnerable enough to turn towards his wife for reassurance (brave), and the wife was able to give him very quick regulation through validating their connection to each other (bonded).
yes it is sometimes that simple… we just need the courage to tell our partner we are emotionally overwhelmed. And our partners need the courage to trust that offering love and connection is sometimes all we need in order to be able to utilize an effective parenting intervention.
Yes, sometimes parents need help with behavioral strategies, but more often then not they simply need emotional support so that they can be regulated enough to intentionally and effectively utilize the parenting intervention that they already know (they just don’t have access to those methods when they are overwhelmed and dis-regulated by a sea of emotions.)
During an intervention such as this I tend to use a lot of self disclosure – I have two very rambunctious and passionate boys – I can related very much to wanting to over control their behavior to ward off the possibility of them getting so chaotic that I fear i wont be able to successfully intervene. in these times I Don’t need academics or education of strategy… I simply need to be loved and a hug works really really well for me. I am expansively grateful that I am married to a really good hugger that knows me very well.